Susan Lacy and Jane Fonda Make the Last Act Count
By Olivia Armstrong
The director and subject of Jane Fonda in Five Acts talk reflection, forgiveness
The last decades of one’s time on Earth can be as vivacious and purposeful as the first: This is the idea at the heart of Susan Lacy’s latest documentary: Jane Fonda in Five Acts. As the daughter of Hollywood royalty (her dad was Oscar-winner Henry Fonda of 12 Angry Men, On Golden Pond), Jane grew up in the spotlight before owning it herself. Lacy (Spielberg) and Fonda sat down to discuss how this “portrait” of an icon came to fruition and why it’s never too late to reinvent oneself.
HBO: Jane, when did you decide you wanted to make a documentary about your life?
Jane Fonda: I was a fan of American Masters, the really compelling documentary series Susan created at PBS. I saw one called Inventing David Geffen and it blew my mind. I walked into the dinner after the premiere and found Susan…
HBO: The film is broken up into acts, and anecdotes about the Fonda family were threaded throughout. Why choose to organize it this way?
Susan Lacy: I knew from the start I wanted to do five acts and that really helped in organizing. The effect of your family — the influence of your parents — is so pervasive throughout your life, it’s why I divided it up the way I did.
Jane Fonda: I feel very lucky because the two critical things for a good portrait painter include knowing which questions to ask, then knowing how to organize the material. Needless to say, there was a lot of material. And she organized it beautifully.
HBO: Were there moments that were challenging to incorporate? What moments did you decide to leave out?
Susan Lacy: Vietnam was a challenge to include. I wanted, without having a point of view, to tell an honest story and speak to both supporters and non-supporters. I know where my sympathies lie, but I didn’t want to wear it on the sleeve of the documentary. I just wanted to tell the story. Plus, Jane was so compelling. I learned stuff even after I read her memoir [My Life So Far]. It was much more real to me why she went there and how brave it was for her to go there — though perhaps a little foolish to go alone. The section was originally at least 30 minutes longer. I had to figure out how to edit it and keep the integrity of the storytelling. It was a lot of work.
I probably would have liked to spend more time on Jane’s female friendships and the work she’s doing. The MeToo movement hadn’t started when we were making this film. Had that been the case, I think it would have extended the film — but I would have had to lose something else.
HBO: A quote that stood out was: “A lot of people were defining me, all of them men. I never felt real.” What women influenced you along the way, Jane? Did they help in your search for realness?
Jane Fonda: Eve Ensler, who authored The Vagina Monologues and many other plays. She puts the starch in my spine. Also Pat Mitchell, who used to be the head of PBS and ran documentaries for Ted Turner. Paula Weinstein, of course. Simone Signoret was there for me when I lived in France. She was a French actor who took me under her wing. When I learned from American soldiers in Paris about the reality of Vietnam, I went to see her and she said, “I’ve been waiting for you.” Mostly, though, it’s myself. It’s the work I’ve done through therapy, meditation, reading, studying Buddhism, studying Christianity — I’ve done a lot of work.
HBO: What do you hope audiences — those familiar with Jane’s story, as well as those who aren’t — take away from this journey?
Jane Fonda: One of the things I hope viewers take away is that it’s never too late to late to say, “I am not who I’m supposed to be. This is not all there is. There’s more to me.” We live a lot longer so we have longer to figure ourselves out. It’s not only having a lot of experiences that make you wise. It’s reflecting on those experiences — really reflecting on what they mean and what they did to you.
In my memoir, I divided my life into three acts of 30 years each because every 30 years, I tend to change. At the beginning of my third act, I realized — holy sh*t — I don’t know who I am. I was 60 and thought, I have maybe 30 more years. Third acts are important and can pull the rest together. So I went about studying myself, which meant studying my parents and grandparents. Those are the people who determine who you are — who you then spend the rest of your life healing from. One of the things I hope people come away feeling is a need to examine their lives.
Susan Lacy: I want people to take away the importance of forgiveness, as well. The liberation of it. That’s a very big thing for me in this film. I’ve made a lot of documentaries and, in many cases involving artists, the third act is the weakest. They get to a point where they’ve done that incredible thing that’s changed the world and then feel the end isn’t vital.
It’s part of the reason I came to the five-act structure: I feel Jane’s last act is as exciting as her first. Not everyone remains the person they were to create the work they did. [Pablo] Picasso is an exception.
Jane Fonda: But you know what Picasso said, right? “It takes a long time to become young.”
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